No Trademark Monopoly: Red Horse / Black Horse

Red Horse Black Horse

In January 2013 the Federal Court considered whether an ordinary beer drinking consumer, on hearing the words RED HORSE, would likely think that RED HORSE must be a beer made by the same company that makes BLACK HORSE.  The Court’s response: “unlikely”.

This decision was reached in San Miguel Brewing International Ltd v. Molson Canada, in which the Federal Court allowed an appeal by San Miguel from the refusal of the Trade-Mark Opposition Board to register San Miguel’s RED HORSE trademark and horse head design.

In the proceedings before the Board, the Member analysed the surrounding circumstances to determine whether the RED HORSE mark was confusing with the  BLACK HORSE trademark in the minds of the relevant consumer.  The Member found that the RED HORSE mark had noteworthy design features, but the word HORSE in the mark rendered it too similar to the BLACK HORSE mark.  Accordingly, the Board denied registration on the basis of confusion.

On appeal, Justice Phelan of the Federal Court applied the well-established test set out in the Supreme Court of Canada decision of Masterpiece  Inc. v. Alavida Lifestyles Inc., emphasizing that one has to: (1) look at the mark as a whole and not tease out each portion of the mark; (2) approach confusion on the basis of first impression, from the perspective of the average person who goes into the market; and (3) use common sense.  The average consumer being the “‘ordinary harried purchaser’ – neither the ‘careful diligent purchaser’ nor the ‘moron in a hurry’”.  Justice Phelan held that the ordinary purchasers in this case were beer drinkers “sensitive to the names of beers and to what they know and like”.  The ordinary purchaser was not the “non-beer drinking life partner who is asked to pick up beer”.

In reversing the Board’s decision, the Court concluded that one look at the labels above, and common sense, was “sufficient to dispel any notion of confusion”.  The Court then went on to state that the Member did not consider that in refusing to register the RED HORSE trademark, Molson was effectively being granted a trademark monopoly over the word HORSE of any colour in relation to beer.  The breadth of that monopoly was found to be unreasonable.

It is clear that Justice Phelan looked at the marks as a whole, including the design element.  It is also of note that he focused on a beer-drinking consumer and not just an average consumer.  However, it is the concern about granting a monopoly that is most interesting.

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About the Blog

The authors of the Canadian Trademark Blog are all members of the Canadian law firm Clark Wilson LLP, based in Vancouver, Canada. Each author's practice focuses–either in whole or in substantial part–on Canadian intellectual property law. Together, they manage the trade-mark portfolios of local, national and international brand owners in nearly all industries and markets.

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